Canadian, Mexican, and American flags stand on display during the fifth round of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg)

Nafta Countries to Hold High-Level Talks Over Pact's Future

(Bloomberg) -- Nafta partners will hold high-level meetings on Thursday and coming days to assess if a new trade agreement is within reach, as U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan says there could be a week or two left to reach a deal.

Canadian and American officials will gather in Washington to discuss Nafta, according to Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton. He didn’t say who would attend, but his country’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will be in the U.S. capital Thursday for unspecified meetings, according to three people familiar with talks and one Canadian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mexico will send part of its Nafta team to Washington on Monday, Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Thursday, adding there’s no date for cabinet-level negotiators who are leading talks to meet. MacNaughton said Canadian and Mexican officials plan to hold talks in Washington, without saying when.

The push to reach an agreement comes after Ryan said last week he’d need to be notified of intent to sign a new North American Free Trade Agreement by May 17 to give Congress enough time to approve the deal this year. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Wednesday told a group of Democratic lawmakers that he didn’t expect to reach an agreement by that deadline, or in the immediate future.

Amended Timeline

But Ryan amended his view of the timeline, saying Thursday there’d be room to pass a deal in this Congress if the U.S. International Trade Commission took less time than permitted in its review. Known as the ITC, the federal agency would have 105 days after the agreement is signed to assess the deal’s potential impact.

“My guess is there’s probably some wiggle room at the ITC on how long it takes for their part of the process, but not an indefinite amount, and that means time is really of the essence” to get a deal, Ryan told reporters in Washington. Quick work by the agency might add a week or two to the deadline, he said. “Will they get a deal? I do not know.”

The three countries have been negotiating for nine months to modernize Nafta. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the 24-year-old pact if he can’t rework it to shrink America’s trade deficit and boost manufacturing jobs. To be sure, there are sticking points.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday in New York that Mexico had made proposals that “will go a long way towards reducing the trade deficit the U.S. has with Mexico and indeed even bringing back some auto jobs from Mexico to the United States.”

Guajardo quickly responded on Twitter, congratulating Trudeau for his remarks. “But a clarification is necessary: any renegotiated Nafta that implies losses of existing Mexican jobs is unacceptable.”

‘Good Deal’

Trudeau also expressed optimism Thursday about reaching an agreement, while noting that differences remain. “We’re down to the point where a good deal is on the table,” Trudeau said in New York. “We know that those last conversations in any deal are extremely important, so I’m feeling positive about this, but it won’t be done until it’s done.”

One of the most contentious issues in talks has been the U.S. push to tighten the rules of origin, which govern how much regional content a car must have to qualify for Nafta’s duty-free benefits. Trudeau said there’s a proposal that is “broadly acceptable” to the three countries, though MacNaughton said some work remains. “We’re that close on autos,” the ambassador said, showing a small gap between his index finger and thumb.

Canada and Mexico expressed continued resistance Thursday to the U.S. proposal for a so-called sunset clause that would kill Nafta after five years unless all parties agree to extend it. Trudeau said the idea is still a sticking point, while Guajardo said it was out of the question.

“There’s still some tough issues,” MacNaughton said. “But do we really want to kick this down the road and miss the opportunity to pull all that good work together and get something formally done?”

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